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Mary Koncel, AWHC Program Specialist

It’s been a few weeks since this year’s roundup and removal on the Devil’s Garden Wild Horse Territory (DGWHT) ended.  The trap has been dismantled, the helicopter and trailers are long gone, and local ranchers are most likely congratulating the U.S. Forest Service (Forest Service) who is congratulating the contractor, Sun J Livestock, Inc. for a job well-done. 

Not surprisingly, wild horses are once again the big losers.  This time almost 500 horses have lost their homes on their federally-protected habitat. Four have lost their lives.  And let’s not forget the American taxpayers who paid for this continuing fiasco that’s thinly disguised as a “management plan.”

AWHC thought another update would be timely.

The Horses

Despite widely published reports that the wild horse population on the DGWHT had surpassed 4,000, the spring 2019 census estimated 1,802.   With the removal of 499 horses for the DGWHT, the number drops down to 1,300 or so horses, and the Forest Service is moving closer to reaching its Appropriate Management Level (AML) of just 206-402 horses.

Ages of the captured horses range from weanlings to late teens and early twenties.

While the Forest Service maintains that the roundup and removal was necessary to prevent the suffering of the horses from lack of forage, they were coming off the range in good to excellent body conditions.

Two older stallions and 16 unadopted mares who were removed in 2016 and then released back onto the DGWHT were recaptured during this operation.

This was the third roundup in four years.  In 2016, 175 horses were removed; in 2018, another 932  were removed.

The Local Influence

Circling back to the AML, it’s important to emphasize that Modoc County, the Modoc Farm Bureau, and local ranchers were responsible for that absurdly low number of horses on 258,000 of public lands.  (Do a little math and that equals 1 horse per 642 acres at high AML.)

In 2013, U.S. Forest Service released the Wild Horse Management Plan (WHMP) for the DGWHT.  But despite being a plan for federally protected wild horses on federal designated wild horse habitat, the personnel who prepared it was hired and paid for by Modoc County and its “partners.”  So much for objectivity!

As Sean Curtis, Resource Analyst for the County of Modoc, explained,  “Because of its economic and social interests, the County—along with partners such as the Modoc Farm Bureau—invested considerable time and money to help the MDF [Modoc National Forest] develop a TMP [Territory Management Plan] to facilitate the appropriate management of the Devil’s Garden wild horses.”

Now that “investment” is paying off big time.  Under the guise of achieving a “thriving natural ecological balance,” the Modoc Farm Bureau and its partners are reaping the rewards – fewer and fewer wild horses so that more and more private livestock can be turned back to graze on public lands. 

This summer, for example, 300 cow/calf pairs have already been returned to the Pine Springs allotment where the Forest Service removed about 145 horses during the roundup. 

The DGWHT is on the Modoc Plateau, “a mile-high expansive prehistoric lava flow, with areas of sparse vegetation, rough broken lava rock, juniper trees, and sagebrush flats in a semi-arid region.”  So why private livestock is allowed to graze there in the first place is a perplexing.  Then again, it comes at practically no cost to the ranchers.

The Blame Game

The Modoc National Forest, as well as the Modoc Farm Bureau, the University of California Cooperative Extension, and “other partners,” continuously scapegoat the wild horses for deterioration of resources on the DGWHT – and consequently the need to reduce private livestock grazing on it and the resulting economic distress for ranchers with public allotments.

However, check out this from the 2016 and 2017 Modoc County Annual Crop Reports*:

The gross agricultural receipts for 2016 totaled $168,528,366.00.This represents an increase of

$25,005,776.00 from, $143,522,580.00 from the 2015 growing season. In 2016, Modoc County

experience(sic) a serve (sic) drought on private, state, and federal lands. There were prevent plant

acres (sic) due to excessive moisture in the spring for irrigated cropland.

and

The gross agricultural receipts for 2017 totaled $153,976,817.00.This represents a decrease of

$14,551,548.80 from, $168,528,366.00 from the 2016 growing season. In 2017, federal and

state grazing allotments permits were destroyed by multiple fires in Modoc County. The Farm

Service Agency provided assistant to ranchers for grazing, water hauling, and fence repair.

Please note that neither report mentions wild horses as having any effect on crop production that includes livestock.  Also note that 2016 gross agricultural receipts experienced an uptick from 2015 -2016, one year before the 2016 wild horse roundup and removal on the DGWHT and the first in more than ten years.

So, although a favorite mantra of the Modoc National Forest, the Modoc County Farm Bureau, and other partners is “blame the horses,”  it seems like Mother Nature is playing a major role in creating the poor – and ongoing – rangeland conditions.

*Annual Crop Reports from earlier years are not available online.

The Double Devil Wild Horse Corrals

About 140 horses, 5 years and under, were transported to the BLM Litchfield corrals, and 350 or so horses remain at the Forest Service’s Double Devil Wild Horse Corrals where they were sorted and processed after being rounded up. 

According to the Modoc National Forest, in order to meet the capacity of the corrals, horses at Double Devil include a mix of older and younger ones, including many yearlings.

Fortunately,  Laura Snell, the UCCE agent who had zero experience with wild horses, along with her equally incompetent wranglers, is no longer “operating” the Double Devil Corrals.  Modoc National Forest personnel is now in charge. 

In the past year, the Forest Service has expanded the pens as well as installed rain/snow shelters and  large heated automatic water tanks.

The Modoc National Forest’s goal is to find “happy homes” for the horses removed from the DGWHT –ironically, they’re federally designated habitat.  While volunteers eventually helped adopt or sell all of the 254 horses from last year’s roundup at the Double Devil Corrals, older horses were a particular challenge. 

According to the Modoc National Forest, 60 horses from this year’s roundup have been placed, 41 through adoption and 19 through sales with limitations.

Four horses have also died at the Double Devil Corrals, including one mare who was trampled, a stallion who was euthanized after getting his leg caught in the pen, and another stallion who died during gelding.

The Modoc National Forest will host the first monthly adoption event on Saturday, November 2, 2019 at Double Devil from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.

For information on adopting or purchasing a horse at the Double Devil Corrals, please call 530-233-8738.

Applications and the required pick-up planning form are available at https://go.usa.gov/xQ3r3.

A short video clip of each horse can be found at www.fs.usda.gov/goto/ModocMares and www.fs.usda.gov/goto/ModocGeldings.

(Horses at the BLM Litchfield corrals are not yet available for adoption.)

The New Leadership

Modoc National Forest Supervisor Amanda McAdams has accepted another position after more than five years on the Modoc.  Timothy Pohlman from the Shawnee National Forest has been named Acting Forest Supervisor for the Modoc.  

The Financial Cost

The full price tag for the 2019 operation is unknown.  Although the initial contract with Sun J Livestock, Inc. for the helicopter roundup and removal was $636 141, the final cost was $574,342

But that bill doesn’t include all the other expenses involved with holding and placement of the horses, such as

  • Expansion and maintenance of the Double Devil Wild Horse Corrals;
  • Salaries for Forest Service personnel caring for the approximately 350 horses at Double Devil and running the adoption/sale program;
  • Veterinary care, farrier care, and feeding for the horses; and
  • Contract with the BLM Litchfield corrals for 140 or so Devil’s Garden wild horses sent there for adoption. According to the BLM, the latest cost for caring for each horse in short-term holding is about $5.00 per day.

AWHC has filed a FOIA request for all contracts, agreements, and MOUs between the Forest Service and other agencies regarding expenses for the Modoc National Forest’s wild horse program.  After a year,  we’re still waiting for a response.

The Future

Next year, the Forest Service is most likely planning on taking off at least another 500 horses in its quest to get to the AML of 206-402 horses.  Yet, it has no plan to implement a PZP fertility control program until AML is reached, and there’s little to no likelihood of achieving it through more inhumane and expensive roundups and removals.

Also, when “the personnel” hired by Modoc County and the Modoc County Farm Bureau created the 2013 WHMP, they conveniently cut out a 23,000-acre middle section of the DGWHT that was prime wild horse habitat.  A lawsuit by AWHC and our partners forced the Forest Service to reinstate that section.  How much those 23,000 will increase the AML has not been determined as the Forest Service still has to conduct a National Environment Policy Act analysis.  AWHC will be monitoring this process and results.

AWHC extends our gratitude to personnel from the Forest Service and other agencies who were deployed to fight the wildfires in and around the Modoc National Forest during this year’s fire season.